Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Article excerpt

Our hearing is the first of our senses to develop while we are in the womb. It's the first connection we make to the life around us, and to other people. In a new series of The Listeners on Radio 4 (Tuesday) we heard from 'professional' listeners, whose lives depend on their highly developed use of this first and most crucial sense. We might hear, but do we always listen?

'For me,' says the barrister Helena Kennedy, 'listening is the activity of hearing combined with the search for meaning, or the hidden meaning.' When she cross-examines in court she has to work out on the spot whether someone is telling the truth. 'To do that,' says Kennedy, 'you have to employ other senses.' It's about listening to what is beyond being said. 'I can feel it,' she says, 'it's visceral.'

The task of Carine Kennedy (no relation), who works as a conference interpreter and has translated for the Pope, the Queen and heads of state, might not seem comparable but in fact she also has to listen so intently that she can catch all the nuances, the subtext of what is being said. Perhaps surprisingly, she admitted, 'I don't render it in a neutral way. If I hear that someone's angry, I will also express that anger.' But she does need to convey clearly what is being said, which often is made more difficult because speakers at these big occasions tend to be nervous, and this makes them speak faster and faster. To keep up, Carine says, she has not only to absorb the sentence that's being said but also at the same time to anticipate what the next sentence will be. Being one step ahead of the speaker is crucial, and this means understanding what lies behind the words she is actually hearing in that moment.

Carine and her colleagues only work for half an hour at a time (and if the subject is very dense and difficult this is cut down to only 15 minutes) to ensure their concentration doesn't flag. As an advocate, too, Helena Kennedy can't afford to miss a word, a pause, a nuance. She has 'to return to that person [under cross-examination] the very words that they have spoken only a few moments before'. You've got to have listened hard enough to be able to do that, she says. It's a skill you have to learn.

Listening is natural, explains Mark Milton, founding director of Education 4 Peace, but it's not habitual. …

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